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The Greatest Editor?

Matt Schudel

Robert Giroux, who is probably unknown to the general public, died yesterday and is remembered in an obituary in today's (Saturday, Sept. 6) paper.

It was 5:30 p.m. when we learned that Giroux had died, and getting the obituary in the paper was a challenge, since we did not have a prepared "advancer," as we call them in the biz. Joe Holley did background work on Giroux's early life, and Adam Bernstein -- who is The Post's new obituaries editor, if you haven't heard, after the retirement of Yvonne Lamb -- searched for photos. My assignment was to pull all the hastily gathered material together in some coherent fasion. By the time we got the story wrapped up at 9 p.m., and I left the office, the first rains of Tropical Storm Hanna were already falling in D.C.

Robert Giroux was the editorial genius behind the Farrar, Straus & Giroux publishing house in New York and edited no fewer than seven winners of the Nobel Prize for literature. To anyone who loves literature or is interested in publishing, Giroux is a god.

He edited Edmund Wilson and George Orwell in the 1940s, was a close friend of T.S. Eliot's and met Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeths Hospital here in D.C. He discovered such literary giants as Robert Lowell, Jean Stafford, Peter Taylor, Bernard Malamud, Flannery O'Connor and Susan Sontag. He published Jack Kerouac's first novel, and in an inadvertently comic tale related in the obituary, rejected Kerouac's greatest work, "On the Road," which prompted Kerouac to call Giroux a "crass idiot."

One thing I ran out of room to mention in the obit was that Giroux was a fine writer on his own merits. In 1982, he published a book about Shakespeare's sonnets, in which he posited that the poems were actually written by the third Earl of Southampton, adding fuel to the Stratfordian debate about who the Bard really was.

Giroux also wrote a book about a notorious unsolved Hollywood murder in 1922: "A Deed of Death: The Story Behind the Unsolved Murder of Hollywood Director William Desmond Taylor."

Many people considered Giroux the finest editor at a New York publishing house since Maxwell Perkins, the Scribner's legend who massaged the prose and egos of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe. At one point, until I got sidetracked by journalism, I had vague aspirations of being a book editor in New York myself. There isn't a better model for the profession than Robert Giroux.

Speaking of great editors, Friday was Len Downie's final day as executive editor of The Washington Post. At 7:20 p.m. last night, as he left his office for the last time, the entire newsroom stood up and applauded as he made his way down the hall. There was no cheering or whistling or hooting -- just sustained, respectful applause as everyone stopped working and rose to his feet in appreciation of an unassuming editor who led this paper for 17 years. Downie presided over 25 Pulitzer Prizes, more than any other editor at any paper in history. Just before he turned the corner to the elevators, Downie turned and blew a kiss to the newsroom that has been his home for the past 44 years. A class act to the end.

By Matt Schudel |  September 6, 2008; 11:22 AM ET  | Category:  Matt Schudel
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Thank you for an interesting article, which provided additional insights into the writing/journalistic life.

Posted by: Brian Snow | September 7, 2008 10:44 AM

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